OAE – Listening in Paris: Le Concert Spirituel

Le Tombeau de Monsieur Lully
Violin Concerto No.2 in D, Op.7
Les Paladins – Suite
Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op.6/8 La Nuit de Noel (Christmas Concerto)
The Four Seasons, Op.8 – Spring
Les Elémens

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Elizabeth Wallfisch (violin)

Reviewed by: Edward Lewis

Reviewed: 27 October, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s “Listening in Paris” series, which attempts to bring to contemporary audiences the experience of concert life in that great cultural capital of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, here focussed on “Le Concert Spirituel”. The original, 18th-century concert played on the nights the Opera was dark, feigning the dignifying association of religion to operate on holy days. Not only did the concert lead the way with the emerging popularity of instrumental music, but it brought to concert-life the same disreputable charges that were aimed at the Opera. One source describes the performers as “a swarm of nymphets in the most immodest clothing”.

Jean-Féry Rebel had been a favourite pupil of Lully’s since the age of eight, so it is not surprising that his Le Tombeau de Monsieur Lully should be openly emotional. But it is just this quality that seemed to escape the initially straight-laced playing of Elizabeth Wallfisch and Rachel Isserlis, who carried the solo violin parts. The intimate nature of the French-overture-like opening was glossed over, with the hesitant, sometimes badly-tuned playing from the upper strings only partly compensated for by Jennifer Bullock’s tender, sinuous playing of the viola da gamba.

Thankfully, both intimacy and conviction emerged with a fiery ‘vif’ section and a sensitively played gamba recitative. Here one almost repented the impression of a staid English governess at a village dance with the vehement, clog-stamping verve and vitality of Wallfisch. Moreover, the hitherto virtually immobile theorbo-player, David Millar, suddenly threw decorum to the wind, assuming the mantle of a jazz bassist.

I say ‘almost repented’, because just as the audience felt able to relax into this more personable style, the opening movement, bringing with it the same detachment and intonation problems, returned. It’s as though we had caught only a glimpse of Parisian permissiveness, now to be told to stop looking.

The relative values of technical virtuosity and genuinely inspired musicality surfaced during the Leclair Violin Concerto. There is little doubting Wallfisch’s technical mastery, but the music seemed slightly academic and dry under such handling. When real flashes of feeling shone through, it appeared to be at the expense of her technique. Her sparkling trills were amazingly accurate, but their context was overlooked; her double-stopped cadenza in the first movement was faultless, but her approach was business-like.

The orchestra relished certain elements of this music, particularly the rich harmony and frequent suspensions. But the rhythmic, almost militarily-accurate accompaniment in the slow middle movement seemed at odds with the soloist’s languorous, sentimental melody. This was a shame, and introduced an element of discomfort into the emotional heart of the piece. The last movement brought a more human touch, with dynamic and stylistic contrasts between the delicate solo sections and the more robust full sections used to great musical effect. However, the cohesiveness of the overall structure seemed to be lost in the tumult of smaller-scale phrases; an abrupt, almost throwaway ending did nothing to relieve this impression.

A suite from Rameau’s “Les Paladins” once again brought the candy of real musical vigour dangled in front of us, only to see it snatched away. The overture was stormy, vibrant and highly enjoyable; rather than the usual swagger, we were treated to full-throttle rage, with fantastic dynamic contrasts and the first true forte of the evening. In the following movement, the strings’ emotional ebb and flow echoed the high bassoon, and a glorious range of tonal colour was shown off in the Menuets. After the opening movements, boldness was always held at arm’s length. The paired phrasing of quavers, although authentically justifiable, seemed exaggerated and distracted from the overall rhythmic flow. The unison flutes, although played with appropriately delicate, liquid tone, were too often out of tune. The growing impersonality was not helped by Wallfisch’s constant presentation of her back to the audience. On the bright side, the theorbo player’s now gloomy aspect was balanced by the eternally sunny, smiling visage of the double bassist.

The well-known Corelli served both to show up occasional problems and to give some more exciting moments. The up-to-now practically faultless ensemble betrayed small problems within the continuo section, not helped by some tired and indelicate playing from this section’s cellist. There was, however, moments of joyful interaction between the ripieno and concertino sections and a genuine wistful quality at the conclusion of the central Adagio. Most impressive was the transition into the final ‘Pastorale’, carried with understated glee on Wallfisch’s driven playing, the movement given a stately feel, with a witty and questioning ending.

It is certainly brave to programme Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’, with its rustic implications and exhaustive interpretations. One does not expect anything new or particularly innovative – and so it was. But we were not the poorer for it – indeed, novelty for novelty’s sake is just as lethargy-inducing as time-honoured cliché. The majority of the work was carried off in an accurate, intelligent and business-like manner. But the slow middle movement was the exception, for it contained real spine-tingling magic. The shimmering violins, combined with the persistent, brave violas, lent the sighing, beautifully cold solo violin all the more presence. This was music with life and breath, and a sense of nature filled the music with meaning.

Rebel’s Les Elémens brought the evening to a close. From the jarring, dissonant opening, one somehow had the sense the orchestra was finally at its most comfortable. The interplay between sections seemed more genuine, and the almost imperceptible increase in tempo in the ‘Loure’ invested the music with a mounting sense of excitement.

And then, after so many tantalising glimpses of the energy and abandon that the OAE is capable of, we were rewarded. From the moment Martin Kelly, a normally respectable viola player, picked up an oversize tambourine, the veil was lifted. Real rhythmic energy infused the string-playing, complemented by some fine virtuoso oboe passages. Kelly threw all dreams of one day owning his own pair of sandals to the wind, and started to move in ways reminiscent of certain scenes in “Dirty Dancing”. The overall effect was one of glorious, exuberant music-making. Here, at last, was the real “Le Concert Spirituel”.

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